The Borderline Pamphlet

Recently, the Beinecke Library at Yale purchased a copy of the short film Monkeys’ Moon (1929), making it available for viewing on their website (link here). Richard Deming — who read in the UMaine New Writing Series Fall 2008 — has written a brief article about the film for Artforum (.pdf here).

Monkeys’ Moon was produced by the circle around H.D., a group associated with the cinema journal Close Up and film company POOL Productions. The key personnel were H.D., Bryher (Winifred Ellerman), and Kenneth Macpherson, but other creative participants included Oswell Blakeston, René Crevel, Dorothy Richardson, Paul Robeson, Hanns Sachs, and Gertrude Stein.

In 1930, POOL released the silent feature Borderline (65 minutes), directed by Macpherson and starring Robeson. The other actors included Robeson’s wife, Eslanda; H.D. (credited as Helga Doorn); and Gavin Arthur, a gay rights pioneer and grandson of U.S. President Chester A. Arthur. In conjunction with the film’s release H.D. wrote an essay on the production, published by Mercury Press in London. The pamphlet was reprinted by the NPF in 1987 as part of the first of several issues of Sagetrieb dedicated to H.D.  The issue — guest-edited by Rachel Blau DuPlessis — is still available for sale ($8.95 plus shipping; ordering info here).The issue includes contributions by Anne Waldman, Beverly Dahlen, Robert Creeley, Bruce Boone, Fielding Dawson, Susan Stanford Friedman, Cassandra Laity, Eileen Gregory, Michael Boughn, S. Travis, and Burton Hatlen.

Monkeys’ Moon sent us back to the Borderline pamphlet, prompting the following thoughts from NPF editorial assistant Alison Fraser.

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The Borderline Pamphlet is an exploration of the artistic and intellectual possibilities of experimental cinema. The film’s title signifies the tension in polarity and the space that develops between polarized energies: the literal borderline location of the film’s town; visual polarity of black and white film; the borderline social status of its main characters, who are “not out of life, not in life.” But, most significantly to the Pamphlet, the director “Mr. Kenneth Macpherson is ‘borderline.’” It is only in this in-between position that he can create this art:

There is beauty, there has always been beauty. The problem in every art period is to present that beauty in a form allied to its environment and its time. …

Light flows over a face. That means nothing or little to you. There is a bronze forehead and the eye sockets are gouged out just this way; there is a concentration of shadow here, a plane of light there. You see a face, perhaps at most you see a pleasing portrait. You may even murmur “Gauguin.” You think, no doubt, that this is clever posing or perhaps delightful portraiture. You do not realize that that face has been moulded, modelled by an artist, that those lights have been arranged, re-arranged deliberately focussed. … Macpherson sculpts literally with light. He gouges, he reveals, he conceals.

In her 1931 poem “Red Roses for Bronze,” H.D. casts her speaker as a sculptor fashioning an image of her lover from “dark bronze.” Fantasizing on the completed project, the lover captured in bronze, H.D. writes that she might then

stroke at — something (stone, marble, intent, stable, materialized)
peace,
even magic sleep
might come again.

The same desire to approach the tangible is manifest in The Borderline Pamphlet even as the film itself defies capture by way of summary. The Borderline Pamphlet, written contemporaneously with “Red Roses for Bronze,” demonstrates H.D.’s struggle to establish a working context for film criticism, something she does primarily through the re-appropriation of visual art and musical terminology. She is self-aware of her approach, and its inherent difficulties:

It is unusual to weld the idea of bronze with movement, but a head is sculptured, gouged out in planes and focus of light and shadow and inset with eyes like those Mena period Egyptian heads with amber glass, yet that head moves.

Despite connecting Borderline to music and various facets of visual art, H.D. makes no outright attempt to connect it with poetry or her own poetics, although the latter is implied. The contrast between her poem and her pamphlet — even while both operate with the same material of bronze — is clear: in the poem, bronze is static, and all the better for the speaker who wishes encase her lover within it. In her analysis of the film, H.D. invokes bronze not simply as a remolding of its possibilities but as a complete revisualization of the abilities and laws of the medium.

Borderline is a dream and perhaps when we say that we have said everything.

In “Red Roses for Bronze,” the speaker hopes that with the completion of her art object, “magic sleep / might come again.” The ability of both art forms to initiate mental transmutation between life and art is one understood through the experience of sleep and dreams. This is illuminating for H.D.:

The film is the art of dream portrayal and perhaps when we say that we have achieved the definition, the synthesis toward which we have been striving. Film is art of another dimension, including not only all art but including all life. Art and life walk hand in hand, drama and music, epic song and lyric rhythm, dance and the matter of science here again, as in some elaborate “allegory” of the Florentines, take hands, twine in sisterly embrace before their one God, here electrically incarnated, LIGHT.

A conclusion, found near the beginning of The Borderline Pamphlet, argues for the subjectivity of beauty and the possibilities inherent in any art form. Though the specific example of H.D.’s pamphlet — that film should be considered a valuable art — is no longer necessary, the general thrust of her sentiments is:

There is no such thing as any fixed art standard. This is beautiful, this was beautiful, this may be beautiful. There is one beauty, it is the beauty of belief, of faith, of hope. And if that beauty is allied to sheer grit and technical efficiency, you get a new sort of art creation.